There is a lot to learn about Speedliting. I’ve spent years honing my craft. Yet, I still learn new techniques and come upon new bits of inspiration all the time.
When you are starting out, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are 15 tips about Speedliting that you should know as you start learning to light with small flash. [Confession – you should know two things about me: I’m not known for being concise and I’m not known for thinking like a guy who writes user’s manuals for a living. That said, I promise that the following will help you turn a Speedlite into a tool of personal expression.]
1. Understand that the hotshoe is not the best place for your Speedlite.
I know. You paid good money for your camera and your Speedlite. It’s not that you didn’t get the deluxe hotshoe. You did. It’s just that shooting with a Speedlite in the hotshoe is similar to the lighting used to make driver’s license and passport photos. You cannot create interesting light when the main source of light is parked on top of your camera.
2. To create interesting light, you also need to create interesting shadows.
From your camera’s perspective, shadows that go straight back are invisible. That’s what happens when the Speedlite is in the hotshoe; the shadows go straight back. To make shadows that the camera can see means that they have to go across the photo. This means that your Speedlite needs to be somewhere to the side of your camera and not right on top.
BIG BTW: If you shoot Nikon, here’s your decoder ring for this article: Canon = Nikon, Speedlite = Speedlight, E-TTL = I-TTL. Everything else is exactly the same.
3. Know that the character of the shadows is determined by the size of the light source.
Let’s face it, the front of your Speedlite is smaller than most things that you will point it at, like someone’s face. When the light source is small relative to the size of what is being photographed, the shadows will be hard (meaning that they have distinct, sharp edges). Don’t fret, this is not your Speedlite’s fault. The sun is huge, but seems relatively small in our sky due to Earth’s distance from it. When you walk down a sidewalk on a sunny day, you have a hard shadow. If a layer of clouds drifts in, then they become the apparent light source. Now, because the clouds are much bigger than you, the light will come at you from many angles and your shadow will be very soft. If you want to make your Speedlite seem bigger, you will have to modify it. You can do this by bouncing it off a ceiling or wall. You can fire it into an umbrella or softbox. There are loads of things you can do to make your Speedlite seem bigger. As you noticed, none of these other items were included in the box with your Speedlite. So, you will need to round up a bit more gear. I’ll provided a detailed list in a future article.
4. If everything in your photo is lit evenly, then nothing will stand out.
You, as the Speedliter, have the option of controlling what the viewer concentrates on. You do this by what you light and what you don’t light. When decoding a photograph, our eyes will start with the brightest spot, spiral around the frame, and then settle back on the brightest spot. As a Speedliter, you can control what becomes the brightest spot by where you point and how your modify your Speedlite. I generally want my subject to be the brightest element. So I will often limit what my Speedlite is hitting by putting a snoot or grid on the front. Or I may point my Speedlite so that only the edge of the light hits my subject and the rest flies past onto an area that the camera does not see. Or I might just zoom the flashtube in my Speedlite to 105mm so that it covers a narrow zone. The key here is to not light the whole shot with the same light.
5. Your Speedlite can do a number of different jobs.
It can be the key light, the fill light, or a separation light. As the key light, your Speedlite will be the main light on the subject (but, as discussed in #4, hopefully not on the whole scene). As the fill light, your Speedlite will fill in the shadows that otherwise would be too dark for the camera to record. Canon’s E-TTL system is pretty good at fill light. As a separation light, your Speedlite will come from somewhere behind your subject for the purpose of creating a bright line of light along one side of your subject so that it stands out from the background.
6. The distance between your Speedlite and subject is another way to control the brightness of your Speedlite.
Here’s a fact that you already know: when you hold a flashlight close to something the beam is brighter than when the flashlight is farther way. The same is true with Speedlites. The closer the Speedlite is to the subject, the brighter it appears. As you move the Speedlite away, it appears to get dimmer. For consistent results, especially when doing a series of test shots, put your on a stand and keep it the same distance from the subject. Also, remember that the farther back you put a light source, the smaller it appears to the subject. Smaller sources have harder shadows.
7. The distance between your camera and the subject does not affect the exposure.*
This one can be a mind-twiser. Let me explain. Imagine that you have a subject standing 10’ from a light stand. You make an exposure from 5’ away. It’s a nice shot. So, now you move back 15’. Your exposure from farther back will essentially be the same as the previous shot. Why? The distance between the light and the subject has not changed. So the same amount of light is hitting the subject. (*Assuming that your Speedlite is not parked on top of your camera.)
8. Your Speedlite can operate in E-TTL mode and in Manual mode. Some also have a Stroboscopic mode.
E-TTL is Canon’s proprietary system where the camera and flash work together automatically to set the power level on the flash. It’s fantastic technology. It’s also a source of great frustration when the camera makes decisions that you do not understand or agree with. In Manual mode, you turn the power level up or down via controls on the back of the Speedlite. The 200-series and 430-series go from 1/1 down to 1/64. The 580-series run from 1/1 down to 1/128. Many photographers, pros included, never feel the need to grow beyond Manual mode. I certainly hope that you will master it and then see it as just another technique in the lighting toolbox. Stroboscopic mode is available on the 580-series only. You could use it to create one of those time-lapse-in-one-frame photos of a golfer swinging a club or a gymnast flying around the uneven bars.
9. Manual mode is the place to start when learning about flash photography.
When starting out, there is nothing like turning the power up and down and seeing the results of your actions. You may feel like you are bumbling at first, but you’ll grow to understand the process and develop some finesse. One tip when shooting in Manual mode: if don’t know where to set the power to begin, start with it at 1/8. That’s half way down the scale.
10. E-TTL and Manual both have their strengths.
E-TTL is amazing technology. I use it anytime that the distance between the subject and the Speedlite(s) is dynamic. I also use it when I want to control the power of Speedlites via Canon’s built-in wireless system. Manual is great for situations where the distance between your Speedlite and subject does not change. I just Manual when I’m shooting tabletop (still-lifes, food, product, etc.). Also, if you need to squeeze every photon out of your Speedlite, shoot in Manual. The E-TTL pre-flash actually chews up a bit of power.
11. When starting out, going off-camera with a cord is easier than going wireless.
There’s no doubt that you have to get your Speedlite off-camera. When you are just learning the basics, using a long cord is better than using wireless triggers. Why? The triggers add a new layer of complexity. My view is that you should control one skill set before moving on.
12. Find your exposure for the ambient light first.
Ambient light, the light that is there already, typically cannot be controlled or modified. So I deal with it by taking a series of non-Speedlite shots to determine what exposure gives the ambient the quality that I’m looking for it to have. Often I will underexpose the ambient because I want to direct the viewer’s eye to the subject.
13. Don’t try to change too many things a once. In the beginning, two is too many.
New Speedliters often make the mistake of trying to change too many things at once: like moving the light stand, re-setting the power level and zooming the flash. Then, when the resulting pic does not look like the expectation, it’s hard to know what to change. Built your shots in steps. Find the exposure for the ambient light. Set your Speedlite. Worry about it’s position and modification first. Get it to go where you want and to have the shadow quality that you want first. Then futz with the power level. If you are using multiple Speedlites, go for your ambient exposure. Set and tune your key light. Then work on the fill light. Then work on the rim light. It’s not uncommon on a professional shoot to do all of this on an assistant who is about the same size as the subject. Then the subject is called from his busy schedule and stands for the shots for just a few minutes.
14. Aperture controls flash exposure. Shutter controls ambient. Say this 1000 times.
Here is a secret that should not be a secret: the power level of your Speedlite is really the duration of the flash. The difference between 1/1 and 1/8 is that the electrons flow through the flash tube at 1/1 for a longer period of time than at 1/8. It’s not that the flash gets brighter. It just stays lit longer. At 1/1, a 580EX fires for about 1/850”. At 1/64 that drops to about 1/31,000”. So it does not matter if the shutter is open for 1/160” or for 1/2”, the flash still flies through in an instant. As long as the sync speed for your camera is not exceeded, then shutter speed has no effect on flash exposure. When it comes to ambient light, shutter speed has a direct effect. Ambient light is continuous light: from the sun, lights in the room, etc. If you go from a shutter speed of 1/30” to 1/60”, then you have just cut the amount of ambient light getting through the lens by half. Aperture has a huge effect on flash exposure. At any given power level, if you go from f/8 to f/11, you have just cut the amount of flash getting through the lens by half. Likewise, if you go from f/8 to f/5.6, the amount of flash getting through has just doubled. In a practical sense, the thing to remember is that if you want more ambient light in your exposure, then you have to use a longer (aka: slower) shutter speed. If you want to dim the ambient more, then you have to use a shorter (aka: faster) shutter speed. In either instance, your flash exposure would not change significantly, if at all.
15. The best way to start learning is by making mistakes lots of them.
As an new Speedliter, you will make loads of mistakes. Guess what, as an experienced Speedliter you will make loads of mistakes. Don’t be freaked out or embarrased. The more mistakes you make, the fewer you’ll have left to do in the future.
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